As a recent graduate who embarked on an unpaid internship before getting a ‘proper job’ three months into my six month internship (in your face, slave labor!) the unpaid internship debate is one I feel has many facets which are often ignored in the numerous ‘black or white’ articles on the subject.
While my peers are all screaming claims of exploitation and the undervaluing of their professions, I fear I may be considered a traitor amongst graduates when I suggest yes, unpaid internships could be wrong, but not necessarily in all cases. When properly regulated, unpaid internships can offer a fantastic educational experience that may dry up if we require small organizations to cough up.
According to Intern Aware, every worker has the right to be paid at least the national minimum wage ($7.25) for their time. If you have set hours to work, set duties to complete and someone who enforces those duties, you have the right to be paid. It seems simple doesn’t it? Yes of course you expect to be paid for working 40 hours a week, contributing to the organization and therefore increasing revenue, so why has it become so mainstream for students and graduates to be ‘working nine to five, with no way to make a living’ to slightly paraphrase Dolly Parton.
While completing voluntary work for a charity (during the hours which suit you) can be a rewarding addition to your CV, it seems that playing the ‘voluntary work’ card is allowing employees to get free labor from interns to satisfy their own ends. Expecting unpaid interns to work long hours doing menial tasks simply couldn’t be described as voluntary work, it’s free work. But of course, the rules aren’t hard or fast, leading to the ol’ voluntary chestnut being flogged to within an inch of its life. When does the distinction between one afternoon a week in a local charity shop and an exploitative unpaid internship begin? No one consensus really exists, leading to employers besmirching the good name of volunteering.
So when is it technically OK to not pay an intern? Intern Aware states that the few exceptions which exempt interns from at least minimum wage include students who are completing a placement as part of their course and people who are ‘charity volunteers’ who aren’t receiving any kind of benefit such as a reference (if you are receiving rewards for working you may be entitled to minimum wage). Confused about that last one? You’re not alone. Again we see too much ambiguity surrounding what technically constitutes unpaid labor.
The real issue I feel exists with unpaid internships, is a complete and utter lack of structuring and regulations which students and graduates will be battling for sometime yet.
I’m sure there’s more than enough cheap companies out there who are more than happy to capitalize on the input of bright young students, but in some cases I think unpaid internships with a vision to genuinely teach interns can offer us a fantastic resource. We pay a lot of money (even more since I graduated in 2012) to go to university for the learning experience, so a placement with the right company is arguably a useful investment if it significantly enhances your skill set.
The problem is how to we determine the thorough and rewarding learning experiences from a damn right cheeky company looking for a free office grunt? I felt my unpaid internship was a kick in the teeth because I had absolutely no chance of getting a job with the tiny company afterwards and I had to work in a part time job around my internship partly to pay my travel fees (travel expenses weren’t included). But, in fairness, I learnt crucial skills valuable for the job I now occupy and I was mostly given fulfilling tasks to complete.
I would recommend if you’re currently on an unpaid internship and feel your status is being manipulated to the point where you don’t know if you’re a volunteer or the free coffee runner, bleed that company for the knowledge equivalent of a company car and a health plan. If there’s software you could learn that’d look great on your CV, pester to be taught until you’re a semi-pro. If you get an interview for a real job, shamelessly get an industry professional on your placement to review your portfolio/application (someone you trust and like of course!) This was the approach I took on my internship as I liked my editor and knew he would be more than happy to help me ‘escape’.
Or you could tell them to take a running jump, unfortunately for many graduates and students on the elusive hunt for a job, this just isn’t an option. I was going to freelance for them when I left my internship, free being bang on the mark. But funnily enough working for nothing left a bad taste in my mouth that only 3 months in a graduate job has started to slowly quell with that sweet, sweet money.